Sarah had a keen interest in music. However, her extra-curricular profile was lacking and did not fully capture the depth of her interest. Coming from an elite high school, one might expect a candidate applying with a music focus to have won national or international competitions, held solo recitals, founded music-related clubs, and really sought out all available channels within the performing arts. Her music extra-curricular activities were mostly informal (securing musicians for campus events, part-time summer jobs) or paid lessons. This problem was challenging in a number of ways:
- Obviously, admissions committees care a lot about extra-curricular participation.
- The paid lessons (particularly in many instruments) could have come across as a passing hobby rather than a profound interest.
- Seeing as that we were applying to a very specific and elite music program, adcoms would expect a proven track record of musical participation and leadership.
We could have handled the situation in a few ways.
We could have sought to really drum up the nature of what she had done in music. She played two instruments for many years, and while she did not have formal awards or accolades to show for it, we could have tried to de-emphasize the awards-focused arts culture, arguing that she stayed away from these channels for the sake of a more well-rounded liberal education.
On the other hand, Sarah had spent quite a bit of time growing up abroad, meaning that she wasn’t able to participate in many of the recital networks some students are. One approach would have been to emphasize how Sarah worked within the resources and opportunities available to her to make the most of them.
A third approach would have involved focusing on the business/entrepreneurship side of NYU’s Clive Davis Institute’s program (where she was applying), rather than the music/arts element.
The Admissionado Approach
Instead, we chose another option: to focus on the future, rather than the past. This strategy was risky, but measured. Focusing on the past would have required contortions. Instead, we let the resume say what it was going to and presented Sarah as a visionary, very much in line with the Clive Davis Institute’s goals of creating industry thought leaders.
Sarah was not ever going to have won major piano or guitar competitions. She had not performed at the Walt Disney Concert Hall or the Lincoln Center. But she had worked at music festivals in Africa and the Caribbean, and had sought to bring more international musical influences to arts programming at her elite high school.
We focused Sarah’s entire application on what she wanted to accomplish in the music industry: bring more African artists into American households via radio and television, establish a new record label specifically focusing on African and Caribbean artists, and encourage a recognition of how indebted much of popular western music is to African and Caribbean sounds. This strategic decision focused attention away from an arguably lacking resume and more toward imagining Sarah as a future leader.
Each of the other options had inherent problems. The first would only have taken us so far – there is only so much room to work with the materials one has. The second would have worked better had Sarah not have been at an extremely elite high school, where networks and resources are aplenty. The third approach would have been the best of the three back-up strategies. However, her extra-curricular record in business/entrepreneurship was also lacking. Furthermore, the program expected applicants to have a strong creative arts foundation; the first-year curriculum was meant to supplement an artistic mindset with business, technology, and entrepreneurship training. Therefore, this option would likely not have been as compelling for admissions officers.
Sarah was admitted early to the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts, one of the most competitive programs to get into at New York University. The program trains Bachelor of Fine Arts students in business, technology, and entrepreneurship to emerge as artistically driven industry leaders.
Sarah had a really important and too often overlooked passion – to try and make international music, particularly African music, more mainstream. She had an acute awareness of how powerful American culture is across the globe, and if we hope to help make the world more equal, opportunities for artistic expression should not be overlooked. As someone who studies inequality professionally, I learned a lot from her about a dimension of stratification I had not fully considered.